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CIty budgets $144k for code enforcement; is it enough?

LACONIA — Since 2009, when amid a severe recession the city was littered with foreclosed and abandoned buildings, the maintenance of private property and enforcement of building codes has been among the highest priorities of city officials. But, Hamilton McLean,a member of the Planning Board, who twice in as many months has goaded the City Council to step up the city's efforts.

McLean told the council that when he helped his daughter and her husband search for a rental unit he was "appalled at the quality of rental housing, saying he found "many, many substandard homes " and described conditions in many apartments "deplorable."

City Manager Scott Myers explained that the city employs a full-time building inspector and a part-time property maintenance clerk who, together with a secretary, work in the code enforcement department under the direction of the Planning Director. A zoning technician in the Planning Department is responsible for addressing violations of the zoning ordinance. Moreover, the Fire Department allots time to inspect multi-family buildings.

The city has budgeted $144,284 for code enforcement, of which salaries represent $133,534, which does not include the cost of inspections undertaken by the Fire Department.

Myers said that when life safety issues arise they are addressed immediately. Otherwise he said that city officials try to work cooperatively with property owners to resolve maintenance issues. When compliance cannot be achieved voluntarily, property owners are cited for violations and, if necessary, taken to court. However, Myers said that the cost of preparing and pursuing litigation is significant and noted that "there are challenges with the court." He said that the court is not especially supportive of municipalities, but "is apt to be cautious and allow property owners time to bring their property into compliance," which he remarked could be "frustrating."

Since 2011, the code enforcement team has conducted more than 6,000 inspections and pursued nearly 600 cases. The Fire Department inspected 132 multi-family buildings in fiscal year and aims to inspect them all every two years while inspecting all the schools and public buildings every year.

 

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Gilmanton will use $171,300 of 'rainy day' fund to lower 2016 tax rate by $1.28

GILMANTON — Selectmen voted yesterday to use $171,300 of the town's undesignated fund balance as revenues to offset the 2016 property tax commitment, which should lower the total rate rate from $25.94 per $1,000 of appraised value to $23.91 per $1,000 of appraised value.

The decision will leave about $1.16 million in the "rainy day" fund, which is 10.2 percent of the estimated $12 million 2017 budget the town is expected to present to the Budget Committee. The Department of Revenue still must review the final product but selectmen said there is a meeting scheduled for next week.

In January, the board voted unanimously to maintain an undesignated fund balance of no less than 10 percent of the town's approved budget, said administrators.

“I think you all did a great job,” said Chair Steve McWhinnie to the three staff members, including a new finance director, who managed to get the balance sheets and appropriate draft documents to the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration plus get a new financial software program up and running while working only part time.

The decline in the municipal tax rate should come as good news to the Gilmanton residents who saw a nearly two dollar spike in the rate set in 2015 after the town neglected to use some of the undesignated fund balance as added revenue or, as it is commonly known, to “buy down the rate.” Total assessed property values have increased only slightly from about $433 million to $435 million, which should have only a slight impact on the final tax burden.

The town was one of the last in the state to submit the necessary documents to the DRA this year, largely, according to emails between the town administrator and the town's auditor, because some information coming from the town was not being provided to the auditor so he could finish the 2015 audit. To date, it is still not completed.

There is plenty of finger pointing between the town administrator, members of the Budget Committee and the auditor. In the interim, the selectmen have agreed to issue a request for proposals for a new town auditor and judging by his replies, he doesn't seem all that upset about losing Gilmanton's business.

As of Wednesday, the Budget Committee does not have a complete 2017 budget proposal to review, although the administration has sent some of the individual department budget for line item review.

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It's (winter) farmers' market season

white gate carrots

Local farmers have adapted their practices so that they can provide many fresh vegetables, such as these carrots from White Gate Farm in Tamworth, even during the cold weather. (Courtesy photo)

For many, outdoor farmers' markets are a treasured part of the spring, summer and fall. The growth in the markets has been driven by shoppers who value food that is grown locally, by people they can come to know, and with practices they can feel good about. Then winter comes, and even the hardiest of yankee farmers don't want to set up a table in a parking lot all day. But they don't go into hibernation – instead, the markets that have provided a robust network connecting shoppers with local growers, food producers and crafters have simply moved indoors. November is the month that the winter farmers' market season begins. Market managers seem to find plenty of shoppers and vendors eager to join the action.

The state saw a surge of winter farmers' markets about five years ago, said Gail McWilliam-Jellie, director of agricultural development at the N.H. Department of Agriculture. While a few of those new markets have since ceased, many have found solid footing, and she expects New Hampshire to have nearly 30 winter farmers' markets this season.

"There are some core markets that have been very popular, drawn great crowds," said McWilliam-Jellie. "The number of farmers markets are holding fairly constant in the last couple of years."

She sees the rise of winter markets as driven by the same factors that draw shoppers to warm-weather markets, yet aided by recent efforts, specifically by the UNH Cooperative Extension, to encourage and educate farmers about which crops can either be harvested in the fall and stored for winter sale, or which can be grown in greenhouses year-round, even in the Northern New England climate. Farmers' markets, whether they're inside or out, have also benefited from state programs that allow shoppers using assistance programs to double their dollars at farmers' markets. Most markets participate in a grant-funded initiative that allows SNAP users to double their buying power.

Kathey Wotton, of Wotton Farm in Wolfeboro, was busily processing chickens on Wednesday to bring to the Wolfeboro Winter Market, held on the first and third Saturday of each month at the First Congregational Church. This will be the second season of the Wolfeboro winter market, which, like many others, started as an outdoor market.

"The customers wanted us to market all year long," said Wotton. She expects to have about 20 vendors at each market, with a range of products that include vegetables, meats, cheeses, prepared foods and crafts. She said the market is still growing and looking for vendors to add to the diversity of offerings.

"If somebody's got something that we don't have, we'd love to have them," said Wotton.

That diversity of offerings is critical to a market's success, said McWilliam-Jellie. In general, she said that a market needs two things to survive: a good location and a broad range of items for sale.

"It depends on the location of the location of the market, if its convenient, and if there's enough there to make it interesting for them to come there and spend their money," she said.

Peg Loughran, who co-organizes, along with Bob Streeter, the Tamworth Farmers' Market, is also preparing for an indoor market on Saturday. The Tamworth market, small but diverse, has been operating year-round for eight years, and splits its schedule between the local elementary school and Town House. The markets have steadily increased in volume over the years, and the winter markets are seeing about 200 to 300 shoppers each week.

The growth of the Tamworth market, in Loughran's view, is due to its consistency, which allows shoppers to make the market a part of their weekly routine, and because of the range of offerings available.

"What I regularly hear is, 'Oh my goodness, I didn't realize how many vendors would be here!'"

Scott Hodsdon is barely into his first season of managing the winter farmers' market in Gilford, which is held each Saturday at the Gilford Community Center. That market, a continuation of the new and successful summer market, is off to a good start, he said. "It's gaining popularity each week." Hodsdon noted that farmers' markets aren't only about buying and selling. They also feature a lot of social interaction.

"One of the things that we love about our farmers' market is that it's a nice community event," Hodsdon said, adding that shoppers tend to linger after they've selected their purchases so that they can catch up with neighbors and friends.

But, said Loughran, the food remains the star of the show, and is why farmers' markets have become a year-round affair.

"If you're looking for food grown locally, there's just no shortage," she said. In Tamworth, as in other markets, there are the usual vegetables, meats and baked goods, as well as clothing, syrup, mushrooms and dairy products. "What else could you need? We even have cotton candy and beef jerky, you can pretty much walk out of here with anything."

 

White gate farm

Winter farmers’ markets offer food as well as crafts, such as pottery, jewelry and textiles. (Courtesy photo)

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